Anyone who routinely submits work for consideration can tell you how long it often takes to receive a response, let alone see your words in print. Right now, for instance, it’s too late to plan for summer; publications will shortly be looking for Christmas-themed material.
In October last year, I heard that my poem The Executive Lounge had been accepted for the local publication Dundee Writes. However, the launch only took place on Thursday of last week. Nonetheless, it was worth the wait because my piece is alongside some excellent work from students and alumni. There is also a focus on one of the creative writing tutors who died around a year ago.
The style of the pamphlet tends towards the less mainstream and more experimental and wistful. My poem describes an object without naming it. Instead, the reader is presented with a list of statistics about the item, with the most telling stats placed near the end.
It’s a favourite of my own work, and it seemed to go down well with the audience, but it is primarily a page poem. On this occasion, audience members could follow the text in the book; but when I read a loud it a couple of years ago, it received no reaction at the end, not even applause.
A couple of Saturdays ago, I visited the Botanic Gardens in Dundee, owned by the city’s university. Within its 21 acres, there are plants and trees from around the world and educational areas where you can learn more about them.
That day, the Gardens had been opened up specifically for writers, artists and photographers to respond in their chosen media for an upcoming anthology by the organisation who maintains them. A botanist even led us to many of the noteworthy spots, from tropical plants that change gender overnight to hardy shrubs that live on a limited water supply.
I’ve long believed that going for a walk helps to sort out any thoughts a writer has. In this case, there was a lot of input from the botanist’s talk, from discussions with other participants and indeed from my own observations.
Yet there was so much input to process that it took several days to form any meaningful output. During these days, I was taken by the idea that some trees can survive forest fires while other trees actually rely on fire for their seeds to germinate. I made drafts in free verse with internal rhymes, but the narrative was ultimately going nowhere.
Some friends, also poets, were on the same tour. One of them writes poems around the length of a haiku, although he doesn’t use the haiku form itself. Looking at my own work, I realised I liked the opening line and the conclusion, and I felt that to include other details would simply be filler and distract from the message I wanted to impart. So, borrowing his style, I kept only those parts: two sentences enjambed over four lines.
After leaving it aside for another few days, I came back to my verse yesterday morning and decided to enter it for the anthology. For that reason, I’m unable to publish the finished product online, but you’ll be the first to know if it’s included.
Which brings me to an event happening this coming Thursday. I’m having a poem published in Dundee Writes, a pamphlet distributed by the University of Dundee. I’ll report back on the launch event next week.
Every so often, I’ll hear about a show and instantly feel compelled to go along. Much of the time, is because I’ve heard great word-of-mouth; sometimes it’s because I like an actor or musician involved in the project.
On the odd occasion, I go because I find the concept utterly arresting, and that’s why I bought a ticket for Fat Kid Running at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on Friday. The poster warned that Katherine McMahon’s debut show is not an inspiring before-and-after picture, but an honest insight into her body image issues. As I’ve been overweight all my life, I wanted to hear from someone in a similar position.
In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve met and spoken to McMahon before, but we’re not otherwise acquainted.
The show opens with a mock bleep-test, a theme revisited at the climax of the piece. We’re taken on an autobiographical trip through bullies in the school changing rooms, via health checks at the GP surgery, and how she built up to running several kilometres without stopping. Sometimes the narrative is poignant but always peppered with a sense of humour that lifts the audience at just the right moment.
Although the poetic prose was compelling in itself, what shone through for me was how genuinely she appeared to accept and love her body with no excuses and no delusions. There are two costume changes, both done in view of the audience, and she makes direct reference to her unshaven armpits and ‘boyish’ figure.
Even after seeing Fat Kid Running, McMahon and I still differ in one respect: I’m still committed to losing weight while she’s determined not to lose any. Yet it’s allowed me to understand the other point of view for the first time, and sends a message that a healthy body is not necessarily a slim body.
This performance, presented by Flint & Pitch, was the only one to date. But I’d love to see it go on tour, along with the support acts.
Calum Rodger was the first act to take the stage with a narrative called Rock, Star, North centred around the landscape of the Grand Theft Auto series. He takes a fresh look at what millions of players see but never study, and creates a rapid-fire homage.
Secondly, a musical group. Belle Jones, Audrey Tait and Lauren Gilmour presented Closed Doors, a story told mostly in rap verse about an unfolding major incident that forces racist neighbours out of their flats to mix with each other. The current ending was left too open for my liking, but I’m assured that it’s a work in progress.
I’ve always been honest about how I’m not a lifelong fiction writer or poet. Peppered throughout this blog is the story of how I began writing fiction in 2010. What I haven’t covered so far is how I became involved with performance poetry.
In early 2013, I heard someone speaking about Ill Manors, directed by the rapper Plan B. One day, I decided to listen to the soundtrack with a view to seeing the film at another time. During one of the tracks, a new voice said, “Pity the fate of young fellows, too long abed with no sleep.” I immediately liked it and wondered who this voice might belong to.
John Cooper Clarke was the answer. He first came to prominence in the late 1970s as a punk poet in the vein of Gil Scott-Heron and as the antidote to John Betjeman. He would often open shows for groups like Joy Division, and they eventually opened for him.
By 2013, Clarke was undergoing a resurgence. Having shaken off the ‘punk’ label, he was touring again, he was working with contemporary musicians, and his work even became required reading for the GCSE syllabus. Plan B began working with him after hearing his poem Evidently Chickentown used in an episode of The Sopranos.
When I went to see Clarke on stage, he brought along Mike McGarry and Luke Wright. Until then, I’d been accustomed to the light and humorous verse of Pam Ayers, and I hadn’t considered that performed poetry didn’t have to be cheesy. Indeed, I remember listening to Clarke’s piece Beasley Street while waiting for a bus on a street that could easily have been the one described.
After that gig, I listened to as much performance poetry as I could find, particularly through the former Edinburgh-based duo Rally & Broad. I was introduced to performers as diverse as the politically-minded Alan Bissett and mellow guitarist Lake Montgomery. Alas, I missed the chance to meet Kate Tempest because I’d been invited to read at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh while she was in Glasgow signing her novel.
But what of my own performances? The acts I saw and heard all influenced what I was writing at the time. Probably the first poem I wrote for performance was Anatomy of a Party, available on The Purple Spotlights EP. It was the first piece where pace mattered, with a long and fast first section, then a calmness near the end. I also took every opportunity to perform my work and learn through experimentation what flies with an audience and what goes down like a lead balloon.
As I’ve written more material, it’s become gradually more personal, and that was influenced in part by a weekend masterclass with Francesca Beard in 2016, who encouraged the group to write something we were scared to write about.
Only a few months later, I was informed that I would have my most personal poem to date published in Aiblins: New Scottish Political Poetry, the first to deal directly with my own bisexuality. It wasn’t that I was scared to tell people – indeed some of the audience already knew – but I was worried that people would miss the satire and think it was insulting.
Another poem on my current setlist is heavily influenced by Andrea Gibson, with an honourable mention to the Tempest poem The Woman the Boy Became that I happened to find at the aforementioned masterclass. My piece Sir Madam features either an intersex or transgender character – it’s never specified which – who has a horrendous back story. I was scared to read it in case my portrayal was considered offensive. In fact, it has been well received, even from those who identify as other than male or female.
And I still have more performers to hear. Two people independently recommended Neil Hilborn recently, and who knows where his influence might take me next.
I feel I often bore you senseless with NaNoWriMo references, though it is a large part of my writing life. This time, I pinky-promise to use it only as a launchpad for my main point.
Over the past month, I’ve come to know two NaNo members particularly well: one through spending time together at meetings before the rest arrive, and one by corresponding mainly online. I’ve known both parties for some time, but by conversing so frequently, I feel I understand them better as individuals and as writers.
Notice the order of those words: ‘individuals’, then ‘writers’. I believe we can create better professional connections by first knowing a little more about the other person.
We’ve all probably passed sales reps on the street who ask, “Who’s your electricity supplier?” without so much as a preliminary, “How are you?” Three thoughts occur to me when I hear the electricity question:
It’s too personal and abrupt when you haven’t built up even a little trust.
It signals that the seller is interested in you only as a customer, not as a person.
I’ve seen the people-first principle succeed before. I have a ‘day job’ in the civil service, and my department began experimenting in around 2010 with an internal social network modelled on Twitter. The rules told us that the site was primarily for business talk, but that some social and recreational chat was permitted. In practice, the social talk was predominant, and it led to a lot of in-jokes and banter. Yet when someone wanted to talk business, the others were more inclined to help because we were already acquainted with one another.
I still speak to some of these people today, though the network has long since closed. Of the replacement websites introduced, none has created the same sense of community. I believe that’s because the social club aspect has been relegated in favour of a business-first approach that doesn’t prompt the same connection.
So where can a writer meet with other writers without feeling as though they’re being sold something? Where I’m from, we’re lucky enough to have a regular monthly meet-up where any writer can drop by and interact with other writers on an informal basis. We meet in a bar aptly called The George Orwell, and there are no readings or speeches. If somebody does have work to promote, it never feels pushy because we all know each other socially.
If you ask your nearest library, they’ll probably be able to direct you to such a nearby group. And if there isn’t one, consider starting your own; it’s not easy, but it can be hugely rewarding.